The Capitol's West Front basks in celebrity, its restoration the subject of perennial debate. But the original East Front has fallen into obscurity--taken apart and scattered around Washington, apparently destined to become an architectural footnote.
The East Front portico, built between 1815 and 1829, was dismantled when that side of the Capitol was restored from 1958 to 1962. It was catalogued for possible reassembly, but no decision has ever been made about what to do with it.
As a result, its pieces lie about the city, battered by the elements, and in some cases, being carved up into souvenirs.
Twenty-four stone columns, 23 Corinthian capitals that once sat atop the columns (one capital is on display at the Capitol), at least one wrought-ironlamppost and countless dentils (small blocks that protrude like teeth from beneath a cornice) are planted in Poplar Point Nursery in the U.S. Botanic Gardens off Howard Road SE, on the banks of the Anacostia River.
They lie exposed to sun, wind and rain amid thriving weeds. The columns are encased in wood that is warped and has begun to rot.
Behind Rock Creek Park's administrative headquarters on Glover Road NW, sandstone, granite and marble blocks that once formed a grandiose East Front wall now cover nearly 15,000 square feet of ground. The plywood fence built to enclose the storage area is nearly gone, and shapely balustrades are overgrown by poison ivy.
James Goode, curator for the Smithsonian castle and author of "Capital Losses," a study of noteworthy Washington buildings slated for destruction, said the most valuable remains of the East Front were two pre-Civil War statues and the pediment (a gable above the doorway), that now belong to the Museum of American Art. He said they were "falling to pieces" when he stumbled on them in the Capitol power plant in 1972 while working on a book about Washington sculpture.
Of the 24 columns, which date from 1815, Goode said that if they "could be re-erected elsewhere, it would be very nice."
At least, said Goode, "they knew enough not to throw the remains away. But what do you do with 200 tons of stone?"
Souvenirs are one use. For the past seven years, with the permission of the House Speaker's Office, the Capitol Historical Society of the U.S. has been converting the sandstone blocks at Rock Creek Park into paperweights and bookends, which are sold for $4 and $20 in their Capitol shop.
Fred Schwengel, the Capitol Historical Society president, said the society has netted about $20,000 from the sale of the mementos, with profits going toward the society's continuing art program, which commissions works of art for congressional buildings.
"Oh, jiminy!" said Schwengel. "We've had all sorts of ideas" about what to do with the East Front remains, including selling cornerstones for private homes.
The House and Senate Office Building commissions, which determine how the Capitol itself is used, have jurisdiction over the remains. Congress has proposed several uses for the columns over the years. One of the more popular proposals has been to give them to the Department of Agriculture for a monument at the National Arboretum.
According to Elliott Carroll, administrative assistant to the architect of the Capitol, the East Front has been saved all these years so its stone would be available when Congress decides how to restore the West Front. But at least one House Building Commission staff member indicated that she was not aware the remains were in storage.
"Oh, the East Front," said Rita Hankins, who heads the House Building Commission, when asked about the stones and columns. "I do handle this but I haven't heard anything about them."
Some of the rock, meanwhile, has been used to renovate historical buildings, including the old courthouse at Port Tobacco, Md. Last year, a sandstone cenotaph from the East Front stone was erected at the Congressional Cemetery for Hale Boggs, the late Louisiana congressman. But moving and recarving the rock is expensive.
Storage, however, costs nothing. Poplar Point Nursery is part of the U.S. Botanic Gardens, which the architect of the Capitol directs. Rock Creek Park is under federal jurisdiction also, and park officials long ago gave the architect of the Capitol permission to place the stone there.
Initially after the East Front's extension, the columns and remains of the portico went to the Capitol power plant. When that space was enlarged seven years ago they were moved to the Botanic Gardens.
For now, the old East Front has the status of a benign ghost. Says Florian Thayn, head of the art division of the Capitol architect's office: "What do you mean, is it worth anything? If the remains don't fit a building they can't be used."